The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Route” is a long poem in free verse consisting of fourteen sections, each structured differently. The title indicates that the poem describes a series of journeys: the narrative of the poet’s own life, the process of creating poetry, travel by car and other modern forms of transportation, and the voyage of humankind itself from the promise of human chromosomes to a fast-approaching apocalypse. Although the poem is written in first person and includes autobiographical material from George Oppen’s life, most of “Route” is a philosophical meditation that considers multiple points of view and the perspective of “we” rather than “I.”

The first section presents a series of ancient, elemental materials (“the beads of the chromosomes,” “sources,” “crude bone,” “the mass of hills,” and “the sun”) that the speaker tries to link to a contemporary moment of individual perception (“Your elbow on a car-edge/ Incognito as summer”). The speaker says that the motive for writing this kind of poetry, which is made up of separate and distinct images, is to “achieve clarity.” The second section describes the importance of this clarity as a “force” that human beings experience as shared rather than “autonomous,” despite the fact that even the objective world is discontinuous and constantly changing like a “house in moonlight.” Next, the speaker develops the idea that the “thing” should not be reduced to “nothing” and that even the act of looking out a window at the world should be done without egotistical...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Oppen is considered to be one of the founding Objectivist poets, and he uses a succession of objective images to achieve the poetic effects of “Route.” The Objectivists were a diverse group launched by Ezra Pound, who believed that poetry should rely on images rather than metaphors, and influenced by William Carlos Williams, who asserted that there should be “no ideas but in things.” Because Oppen believed in the importance of giving realism to the thing described in his poetry and not merely treating the image as a vehicle for a more abstract or intellectual concept, he avoids relying on metaphors. A careful reading of “Route” shows few metaphoric constructions, even when the logic of the poem would seem to demand it. Sometimes the poem juxtaposes images or words without making the relationship between them completely clear, so that the reader may wonder whether or not a phrase such as “Reality, blind eye” is a metaphor. Sometimes the poem isolates the image from the rest of the text so that it can have greater impact as a moment of perception such as the “sea anemonefiltering the sea water through its body.” Although the poem opens with a simile comparing chromosomes to a rosary, much of the poem uses association by proximity rather than association by comparison, so that it is not just the images themselves that are poetic, but the sequence of images: “And beyond, culvert, blind curb, there are also names/ For these things, language in the...

(The entire section is 434 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Duplessis, Rachel Blau, ed. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Hatlen, Burton, ed. George Oppen, Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1981.

Ironwood 5 (1975).

Ironwood 13 (Fall, 1985).

Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 153-170.

Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Paideuma 10 (Spring, 1981).

Thackrey, Susan. George Oppen: A Radical Practice. San Francisco: O Books and the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, 2001.